As the Obama administration winds down, it’s only natural that some officials make their legacy statements. So here comes former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to sum up what, exactly, we have to show for his eight years in office. This may seem like a pointless exercise, but as we move into the Trump-DeVos era, looking at all the targets that Duncan and the current Education Secretary John “Duncan Lite” King set up, shot at, and missed can help us understand where we are.
For those of us who have been following him, Duncan’s narrative was familiar; (you can find similar bits and pieces in his 2010 UNESCO speech). Here’s the gist:
U.S. schools are failing and lying about it—telling students they’re doing well when they aren’t. The answer is national standards to create a uniform data base that would let us measure every student against every other student. That, in turn, would let us find all the great teachers. (And then we will move those teachers around so that all students have access to them). Meanwhile, we will foster the growth of a charter school industry which will foster laboratories of innovation, creating whole new methods of teaching. We’ll get things started early,with pre-K schooling, building an all-inclusive cradle-to-career pipeline, and turn the education system into a lean, efficient machine for cranking out super-duper citizens, who will make the nation so competitive that their educated awesomeness will erase poverty.
Now let’s look at Duncan’s self-proclaimed list of achievements:
- Most states have higher learning standards and better assessments.
The dream of unified national standards, measured by uniform national standardized tests, is dead. The Common Core has gone into hiding, afraid to even speak its own name, and the national testing framework is a shambles.
- We have more children in early learning programs.
As of 2014, only around five states have more than 50 percent enrollment in pre-K. And we have no idea how good any of these programs are. Meanwhile, K-2 programs increasingly cut critical play and recess time for inappropriate academic learning. Duncan also cheers the fact that test scores are up in lower grades; he does not talk about what it has cost to raise those scores, nor does he offer a shred of evidence that raising the test scores in the lowest grades has any lasting benefit at all.
- We have more high-quality school options available.
In other words, more charters. The quantity part is true; the quality part is suspect, with even some charter supporters saying that more must be done to insure charter quality. In many states (e.g. Ohio, Florida, North Carolina) charters are an unregulated mess.
Where charters have been even marginally successful, we have learned nothing new. If you fill your school with your preferred students, provide lots of resources, and spend a bunch of money, you can sometimes get students to do well. This is not news to anyone who has worked in education for five minutes. Despite Duncan’s assertions, charters have yielded zero new ideas about how to educate students effectively.
- All colleges—public, private, and for-profit—face more pressure to graduate their students instead of merely enrolling them and allowing them to drop out.
This isn’t really good news. To rephrase it, “All colleges face more pressure to reject any at-risk students who aren’t certain to graduate.” We do have more students enrolled in colleges, and many of those colleges are feeling pressure to do less general educating and more vocational training. We have no evidence that any of that is a Good Thing.
Duncan’s legacy speech is also marked by what it doesn’t address. Here’s one of his unachieved goals:
- Too many children show up in kindergarten lagging behind their peers due to a lack of access to pre-K programs and other factors.
“And other factors” would be the entire complex web of problems created by systemic poverty, but Duncan has always insisted that a good teacher can overcome poverty and good students can escape it.
- Too many young people are still trapped in underperforming schools.
Let me rephrase that. “Too many schools are deprived of the necessary resources and support they need to thrive and be successful.”
Duncan’s legacy list also ignores his responsibility for test-centered schools, where the whole business of education has been distorted around generating good scores on the Big Standardized Test, and “good teaching” has been perverted to mean simply “teacher whose students get good test scores.”
Nor does Duncan address the manner in which charter schools have drained resources from public schools, chopping the guts out of public school systems that still serve the many so that charter schools can serve the few.
Duncan wraps up with a set of recommendations for the new administration, which I’m sure Trump and DeVos will examine just as carefully as Trump plans to look at his morning security briefings. At this point I can feel a little bad for Duncan—he didn’t really accomplish any of his major goals, and the next administration is not even going to pay lip service to his efforts. It must be tough to feel like you really know a lot about how something works, but the people in power won’t even listen to you. It feels, in fact, a lot like being a teacher during Duncan’s tenure at the U.S. Department of Education.
Peter Greene has been a classroom secondary English teacher for over thirty-five years. He lives and works in a small town in Northwest Pennsylvania, blogs at Curmudgucation, and is Midwest Regional Progressive Education Fellow.